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The Bartender

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Todd had heard the story about Elizabeth’s disappearance straight from the horse’s -- Jessica’s -- mouth one night, after she’d hobbled into Frankie’s, right leg in a boot, a crutch under each arm, and of course, he had opened his mouth and had to ask.

He wasn’t exactly stunned to hear the familiar tale -- yet again, a guy had come between the Wakefield twins, it wasn’t the shocker of the century. Hell, he had come between the two of them many a time.

Still, the news that Elizabeth had left -- actually, truly, left -- had shocked him. It wasn’t like he was that close to her anymore -- she thought he was trash, beneath her and her perfect life, just because he worked at a bar -- but he’d thought he’d known her. The Elizabeth that he’d known since second grade wouldn’t have done that.

That night, Todd sat at the computer and sent her an email, half expecting to hear back.

He never did.

 

***

It was cold -- well, Sweet Valley cold, which wasn’t very cold at all for people in places that had actual seasons -- the December night that Elizabeth Wakefield [Todd knew it was Elizabeth because he knew his first love, except for the times he hadn’t, like when those freaky people that had tried to become the twins and Jessica herself had fooled him] walked into the bar, looking decidedly pale for a Southern Californian native.

“I want a gin and orange,” she told him, her voice nervous and unsure, and she flashed him her ID as she sat at the bar.

It was awkward, having her there, looking somewhat at home in a place she’d always judged.

“It must have been difficult,” he said after a moment, flashing her a smile. Elizabeth looks like her dog ran away again, and it kills him to see her looking so sad. So lost. “Moving away to a faraway place, all alone. Having to get used to a new country.”

He’d really just been talking to fill the silence, so he was stunned when she spoke.

“Coming back was harder,” she told him. “Everything’s changed.”

“What do you mean?” Todd shot her a concerned look.

“I didn’t go away to university,” she replied, sipping her drink like it was poison. “They lost my spot, they gave it away. I had to work as a scullery maid.”

Todd wanted to say that she could have returned home, that she didn’t have to have worked as a scullery maid, but he wisely remains mum. He’s a bartender, after all. That’s what they do.

Except, of course, Elizabeth is Elizabeth, even after her months away, and she is staring at him expectantly, waiting for a response.

He shrugged. “So?”

“So?” His ex-girlfriend repeated, rather bitterly. “What do you mean by that?”

“You’ll be alright,” he offered. “You’re a smart girl.”

 

***

 

Elizabeth is there the next night, and Todd manages to hide his surprise, sliding the Bud Light across the bar when she orders one.

Of course she drinks Bud Light, he snarked to himself. It’s the typical American lager of 21 year old women who don’t want to appear trashy.

“Billie’s pregnant,” she tells him, with all the dramatic woe of a preteen. “She’s five months along.”

Todd knows better than to admit that he knew that, to admit that he’d been to the wedding, to admit that everyone knew that, when it’s obvious by the fact that Elizabeth is looking like she’s a dying cow that she didn’t know.

“Congratulations,” he says, not really caring, but also not missing her scoff. “What, you don’t think that’s a good thing? You being an aunt?”

Elizabeth rolls her eyes. “I didn’t know about it,” she says bitingly, taking a chug of her beer. “About the baby, about them being married, about none of it.”

Todd can’t help it. He really can’t. He opens his big mouth.

“Maybe that’s your fault,” he says, though he knows as the bartender his role is that of an agreeing confidant. Unfortunately for Todd, he also knows Elizabeth Wakefield.

So, as her eyes widen, he waits for it.

“How dare you say that?” She demands, her voice full of the most righteous anger, the kind that Todd usually finds in the voices of men who have been caught cheating.

“You left, Liz,” he says. “You never called, never wrote, never nothing. It’s not like they had much of a choice.”

He was relieved when she stormed out of the bar, even though he had to pay for her beer.

 

***

 

Midweek, Steven Wakefield comes into Frankie’s -- pregnant wife in tow -- to pay for the beer, full of apologies for his sister’s behavior.

Todd is familiar with this tableau. The irate drunk, the apologetic relative, even the pregnant wife [though usually the pregnant wife is married to the drunk and doing the apologizing], the whole lot of it.

It’s Billie’s comment as they leave that makes him want to stab his ears out. “She thinks you and her have a thing going on, you know that, right?”

 

Only Elizabeth would constitute idle chatter as a thing.

 

***

 

Oh god, Todd thinks to himself as Elizabeth comes into his bar, tears streaming down her face. He’s very grateful that they’re alone, only because he can just see one of the Rick Andover types taking advantage of her in her state -- which is very, very, drunk -- and Elizabeth being too polite to stop them.

“I was engaged,” she wails, downing her drink and asking for another, not even realizing that it’s just water. “I was engaged, to the son of an Earl.”

It’s all he can do to not laugh, because it frankly is laughable.

“What happened?” He asks instead.

“He’s just an asshole,” she replies, and he sighs to himself, knowing he’s going to have to ask.

“You wanna talk about it?”

She nods, and he offers her hand a comforting squeeze, having already forgotten Billie’s comment.

 

***

 

Todd remembers what Billie said, though unfortunately slightly too late for this to be of any help for him.

“What are you doing for Christmas?” Elizabeth asks, and he is so damn tired of customers trying to guilt him about staying open that he opens his big mouth and tells the truth.

“Frankie’s is closed,” he tells her. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, though.”

It’s when Elizabeth invites him over -- to her parents house -- for Christmas, that Todd Wilkins remembers what Billie Wakefield had said to him as she and Steven were leaving the bar.

And naturally, Todd takes one look at his former girlfriend -- his drunk, hot mess of an ex-girlfriend -- and says yes.

He could never say no to Elizabeth.